After a Natural Disaster: A Guide for Parents
Natural disasters can leave children feeling frightened, confused, and insecure. Whether a child has personally experienced trauma or has merely seen the event on television or heard it discussed by adults, it is important for parents to be informed and ready to help if reactions to stress begin to occur.
Children respond to trauma in many different ways. Some may have experienced reactions very soon after the event; others may seem to be doing fine for weeks or months, then start to show worrisome behavior. Knowing the signs that are common at different ages can help parents and others who work with children recognize problems and respond appropriately.
Children from one to five years old may find it hard to adjust to change and loss. In addition, they have not yet developed their own coping skills, so they must depend on parents and family members to help them through difficult times.
Very young children may regress to an earlier behavioral stage after a traumatic event. For example, preschoolers may resume thumb-sucking or bedwetting or may become afraid of strangers, animals, darkness, or "monsters." They may cling to a parent or become very attached to a place where they feel safe.
Changes in eating and sleeping habits are common, as are unexplainable aches and pains. Other symptoms to watch for are misbehavior, hyperactivity, speech difficulties, and aggressive or withdrawn behavior. Preschoolers may tell exaggerated stories about the traumatic event or may speak of it over and over.
Children aged five to eleven may have some of the same reactions as younger ones. In addition, they may withdraw from playing with friends, compete for parents’ attention, fear going to school, drop in school grades, become aggressive, or find it hard to concentrate.
Children twelve to fourteen are likely to have vague physical complaints when under stress and may abandon chores, school work, and other responsibilities they previously handled. While they may compete for attention from parents, they may also withdraw, resist authority, become disruptive at home or in the classroom, or even begin to experiment with high-risk behaviors such as drinking or drug abuse. These young people are at a developmental stage in which the opinions of others are very important. They need to be thought of as "normal" by their friends and are less concerned about relating well with adults or participating in recreation or family activities they once enjoyed.
In later teen years, they may experience feelings of helplessness and guilt because they are unable to assume full adult responsibilities as the community responds to the disaster. Older teens may also deny the extent of their emotional reactions to the event.
What can parents do?
Reassurance is the key to helping children through a traumatic time. Very young children need a lot of cuddling, as well as verbal support. Answer questions about the disaster honestly, but don't dwell on frightening details or allow the subject to dominate family time indefinitely. Encourage children of all ages to express emotions through talking, drawing, or painting and to find a way to help others who were affected by the disaster.
Try to maintain a normal household routine and encourage children to participate in physical activity. Reduce your expectations temporarily about performance in school or at home, perhaps by substituting less demanding responsibilities for normal chores.
Finally, acknowledge that you, too, may have reactions associated with the natural disaster, and take steps to promote your own physical and emotional healing.
Partnering for School Success — Builds strong parent-child relationships through education and collaboration.
Extreme Weather — Extension resources for floods, wind damage, winter impacts, and more.
It's Important to Talk with Children About Natural Disasters — Make time to ask questions and listen; be available.
After a Natural Disaster: Coping with Loss — The five stages of grieving.